Negev demolition: Israel’s politics of builiding

Yesterday’s Guardian carries video and comment regarding the demolition of a Bedouin village in the Negev region of Israel. Neve Gordon provocatively refers to the razing of this village as ‘ethnic cleansing’, arguing that it is evidence of the state of Israel’s desire to ‘Judaise’ the Negev. The description of the demolition of residential structures and the uprooting of trees certainly indicates an attempt to prevent the Bedouin establishing a claim to territory that Israel regards as its own (and thus, following the logic of Zionism, as Jewish). Building is a primary way in which identity and territory can be linked since dwelling establishes a durable relationship between individuals and the place they reside in. Given that ethnic cleansing is defined by its assumed linkage of identity and territory one can understand how Gordon comes to his conclusion. However striking this claim might be, however, to my mind it obscures the deeper politics of administrative demolition in Israel.

Other reports (here and here) refer to the demolition as part of a long standing question of land ownership and the administrative destruction of structures deemed illegal. The Bedouin are represented as having temporarily occupied state land, while the authorities are represented as removing this temporary occupation in order to prevent the Bedouin acquiring rights to land that the state regards as its own. Passing over the fascinating question of the disjuncture between urbanised and nomadic societies, this is a prime illustration of the manner in which Israel has asserted territorial control through planning law.

Palestinians watch the demolition of a Palestinian building by the Jerusalem Municipality in Issawiyeh, an Arab neighborhood, in east Jerusalem, November 18, 2009. Israel is facing harsh criticism from Washington, Europe and the UN after approving a plan to build 900 new housing units in the southeast settlement of Gilo in Jerusalem. UPI/Debbie Hill Photo via Newscom

As Weizman and Segal as well as B’Tselem have noted, the state of Israel has planning laws that prevent those that it regards as other (primarily Palestinians) from building and thus asserting a fixed relation to territory. B’Tselem has catalogued a vast number of house demolitions that have occurred for ‘administrative reasons’ – effectively a lack of planning permission. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions report No Place Like Home outlines how difficult it is for Palestinians to obtain such permission. Under such circumstances Palestinian buildings are precarious, perpetually exposed to demolition for lack of permission. Interestingly, this hides the politics of building away in planning regulations. As such the state of Israel can present demolitions as simple rule-following and argue that Palestinians unfortunate enough to have their homes demolished are in that position because they did not follow the rules (and that this violence would not have occurred if they had). This masks the manner in which the rules themselves codify an attempt to prevent Palestinians establishing a relationship – via building homes – between identity and territory. It is for this reason that in my book Urbicide I referred to Israeli house demolitions in the same terms that I referred to the Bosnian-Serb siege of Sarajevo. Moreover, it is a classic example of the reasons why we should be cautious of claims that the law is a simple instrument above/beyond politics. The case of Israeli lawfare shows precisely how the law is always political and claims framed in legal terms must be seen as such.

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